Castalian Quartet violinist Daniel Roberts arrives in the Big Apple for a Carnegie Hall debut scheduled for Friday 13th...

If one more person reacts like that, I thought, then I’ll do away with life in civilisation and set-up camp off-grid. Casual superstition—can’t stand it. Leave it to the pros. Take me, a bona fide expert: if Liverpool are playing it’ll be the same socks, the same boxer briefs, a You’ll Never Walk Alone scarf positioned just so over my matchday chair. On concert days, ‘thirty minutes to go’ means chinos off and performance blacks on—any later and my bowing hand achieves a quicksilver vibrato while the left performs a tremolando dance down the fingerboard. But these people, all of them, were spouting the old Friday 13th bull. I mean, come on, so what if our Carnegie debut is Friday 13th? I’ll ensure a 5-star review in the New York Times simply by undoing my trouser fly at just the right moment.

I arrived in Cobble Hill on the Tuesday, catching kick-off with minutes to spare. Liverpool lost to Atletico Madrid in the Champions League. No problem, we’d won it the year before, and my superstitions rarely bore fruit in the Big Apple. Brooklyn Bridge Park and its myriad piers beckoned, via coffee on Atlantic. Alas, I entered into a heated to-and-fro with the barista, who was percolating over my apparently indecipherable British accent. I ended up with an extra hot cow’s milk cap when I’d ordered oat. Jeez. I calmed myself by taking an imaginary pair of topiary secateurs to his disproportionate white-guy Afro. Takeout cuppa joe in hand, it was one of those New York days, the cyan expanse above somehow more distant, sunlight skipping off skyscraping façades. 72 hours to go.

Wednesday came. The subway was too risky, but the bridge was a dream, emptied by a tidal wave of fear. Cyclists raced and raved over its wooden walkway, a lone group of visor-hatted tourists dispersed into the East River (probably); but I didn’t care—somewhere north of the Empire State lay Carnegie, in wait. Sandblasted TriBeCa was eerily deserted. At Bubby’s, a mother and her flock were singing Happy Birthday out of sight round the corner. I joined in, but on the repetition realised they were only washing their hands. In the evening, a Japanese dinner: yellow-tail nigiri accompanied by Trump’s European travel ban. Exemption for the UK, though—a special deal for Brother Boris. 48 hours to go.

Thursday morning I stood in line at Trader Joe’s—well, outside Trader Joe’s, somewhere way off down the street. A hipster passed by, his beard unfurled over umpteen packs of toilet roll. By the time I reached the store’s entrance I had sunstroke; I panic bought, and left with twelve jars of Alfredo sauce for a one week stay. After lunch I decided the Schumann finale needed some attention; it felt like all the practice I’d ever done had led to that week, to Carnegie Hall. I was in the zone—a sportsman primed for gold. Well, maybe a fisherman. Ok, a retired fisherman. By now my colleagues had flown into town and we’d agreed on a 2pm rehearsal. At ten-to, I was rattling off my broken arpeggios, fixed just in time for the big night. At five-to, my phone lit up on the music stand—our US manager, David, FaceTiming from Massachusetts. At 2 the doorbell rang:

“Guys, the concert’s off.” We were the first of the Carnegie Covid Cancellations. 24 hours to go until nothing, niente; a rapid decrescendo.

Chris and I legged it over the Brooklyn Bridge and glugged a consolation gallon of Barolo in Lower Manhattan. We spent a while, a long while, gaping into the name-framed voids of the 9/11 Memorial. 30 minutes to go until what should’ve been showtime and my trousers were still zipped—luckily for the other passengers sailing the Staten Island Ferry’s stern. New York became a haze behind seagulls. Those Friday the Thirteenthers had been right all along.

As the balconies of Bologna and the driveways of Bayswater came together in music, I couldn’t even look at the violin. What was the point? No concerts for months. “How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Wait for a pandemic to be over.” After a couple of weeks I came round and took it out of its case. A fortnight off playing—when had that ever happened? The sound was awful, deafening in my ear; a Suzuki training orchestra colliding with the massed pipes of the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders. And yet I loved it, as if I was casting my senses upon the fiddle for the first time. Had the varnish always smelled so sweet? It took me back to the pine-clad attic of my childhood home, where my train set ran. I was a kid again. Playing. The ‘zone’ was a stratosphere away, but everything felt so relaxed—bowing arm supple, vibrato gyrating to the languid beat of a faraway air raid siren. I know some who are learning the concertos they never got round to or overlaying tracks to duet with themselves. Perhaps I should be doing that, but I’ve regressed; I’m back to basics. Without a performance on the horizon, I’m remembering what it was like to play without the need to deliver: I’m laughing at erroneous squeaks that would’ve driven me crazy pre-lockdown; I’m marvelling when I cajole a half-decent noise; I’m hearing it all afresh—I’m taking my time. I mustn’t forget to do that when things get going again.

Over in Brooklyn my friends tell me of body bags flung into freezer trucks, of a pop-up morgue where I once sauntered with my non-oat cappuccino. And here I am in Giggleswick, a self-distancing second violinist fretting over the next Tesco order and how to communicate via Zoom (on one three-way call my friend’s baby blitzed another mate’s profound storytelling with oral flatulence). There’s a shire horse up the road and alpacas too, sweltering in balmy Yorkshire. I never knew there were so many varieties of sheep; ones with curly mops, some jet-black, lambs gambolling, others roly-poly-ing. When we hop the stile their mothers lollop away, while they cock their heads quizzically—want to come and play? Most of them are gone now, to their own pop-up morgue. The garden chimes to bluebells and white bells and the clunk of club on ball—Dad’s 9-hole putting green, a course of curses and frustration and occasional holes-in-one. Trees and bushes too, of types I’ve never bothered to learn, fragrant and quivering with finches and dunnocks. In concert season I don’t stop to notice these things; I mustn’t forget to do so when things get going again.

Next Friday 13th we’ve a concert in Kalamazoo. Half an hour before, I’ll be staring out the window, looking for lambs. If you’re not superstitious, maybe I’ll see you there too.

14 May 2020